Yahoo: The Marissa Mayer Turnaround

 

Critics spew well-meaning generalities when criticizing Marissa Mayer’s first moves at Yahoo! They fail to see the urgency of the company’s turnaround situation, the need to refocus the workforce and spruce up the management.

Last July, Yahoo! elected a new CEO, their seventh or eight, I’ve lost count. Marissa Mayer is an ex-Google exec with a BS in symbolics systems and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford, just like Scott Forstall. After a 13-year career at the biggest Cloud company on Earth, Mayer brings relevant experience to the CEO position of the once-great Web company. She also happens to be female but, unlike a predecessor of the same gender, Mayer doesn’t appear to feel the need to assert power by swearing like a sailor.

Power she asserts nonetheless. Barely pausing to deliver her first child, Mayer set to work: Yahoo! apps were too many, she vowed to cut them from 60 to the dozen or so that support our “digital daily habit“. Hiring standards have been seriously upgraded, the CEO wants to review every candidate to weed out “C-list slackers“. People were shown the door, starting in the executive suite. Some were replaced by ex-Google comrades such as her newly-appointed COO, Henrique De Castro.

The changes have been met with intramural criticism, from charges of Google cronyism to moaning over her meddling with the hiring process (“Yahoo’s Mayer gets internal flak for more rigorous hiring“). The complainers might as well get used to it: Mayer knows who she’s competing against, she wants to win, and that means Yahoo! needs to attract Valley-class talent. If she can pull them from Google, even better. The insiders who complain to the media only advertise their fear — a bad idea — and unwittingly make the case for Mayer’s higher standards.

The new sheriff is a high-intensity person. Friends tell me she also reviews new apps in great detail, down to color choices. (Didn’t another successful leader so annoy people?)

The protests over Mayer’s hiring practices and (supposed) micromanagement are nothing compared to the howls of pain over Mayer’s most controversial decision: No more Working From Home.

The prohibition is an affront to accepted beliefs about white-collar productivity, work/life balance, working mothers, sending less CO2 into the atmosphere. Does Mayer oppose a balanced life and a greener planet?

No, presumably — but reality intrudes. Once the king of the Web, Yahoo! stood by and watched as Google and Facebook seduced their users and advertisers. In 2008, in an effort to bolster its flagging on-line fortunes, Microsoft offered more than $44B to acquire Yahoo. The Board nixed the deal and Yahoo! kept sinking. Right before Mayer took the helm in July 2012, Yahoo’s market cap hovered around $16B, a decline of more than 60%.

The niceties of peacetime prosperity had to go. Unlike her “explicit” predecessor, Mayer doesn’t stoop to lash out at the protesters but one can imagine what she thinks: “Shut up, you whiners. This is a turnaround, not a Baja California cruise!”

In the Valley, WFH has long been controversial. In spite of its undeniable benefits, too-frequent abuses led to WFH becoming a euphemism for goofing off, or for starting a software business on one’s employer’s dime, an honored tradition.

Telecommuting requires a secure VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection from your computer at home to the company’s servers. These systems keep a traffic log, a record of who connects, from what IP address, when, for how long, how much data, and so on. Now, picture a CEO from the Google tradition of data analysis. She looks at the VPN logs and sees too much “comfort”, to be polite.

Mayer did what leaders do: She made a decision that made some people unhappy in order to achieve success for the whole enterprise (toned-up employees and shareholders). After seeing Yahoo! lose altitude year after year, the criticism leveled at Mayer makes me optimistic about the company’s future: Mayer’s treatment hurts where it needs to.

Among the many critics of Mayer’s no-WHF decision, the one I find most puzzling — or is it embarrassing? — emanates from the prestigious Wharton School of Business (at the University of Pennsylvania). In a Knowledge@Wharton article, scholars make sage but irrelevant comments such as:

Wharton faculty members who specialize in issues pertaining to employee productivity and work/life balance were similarly surprised by Mayer’s all-encompassing policy change. “Our experience in this field is that one-size-fits-all policies just don’t work,” notes Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project. “You want to have as many tools as possible available to you as an executive to be able to tailor the work to the demands of the task. The fewer tools you have available, the harder it is to solve the problem.”

Nowhere in the article do the Wharton scholars consider the urgency of Yahoo’s situation, nor do they speculate that perhaps Mayer didn’t like what she found in the VPN logs. And, speaking of numbers, the Wharton experts provide no numbers, no sample size, no control group to buttress their statements. Our well-meaning academics might want to take a look at a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the prolific creator of corpocrat-skewering Dilbert cartoons. Titled Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit, the post vigorously delivers what the title promises, as in this paragraph:

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work. 

Or this one, closer to today’s topic [emphasis mine]:

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company’s success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of on-line shoe store Zappos, isn’t a blogger, cartoonist, or academic theoretician; he leads a very successful company that’s admired for its customer-oriented practices (culture, if you will). In this Business Insider piece, titled Here’s Why I Don’t Want My Employees To Work From Home, Hsieh is unequivocal about the value of Working From Work [emphasis mine]:

Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.

We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.

What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favors for each other because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.

Who in good conscience believes that Mayer’s edict is absolute and permanent? You have a sick child at home, will you be granted the permission to work from home for a few days? Of course. Or, you’re an asocial but genius coder, will you be allowed to code at home from 10 pm to 7 am? Again, yes. Mayer saw it done, with good results, at her previous company.

With Mayer’s guidance, the patient has been stabilized and is on the road to recovery. But where does that road lead to? What does Yahoo! want to be now that it’s starting to act like a grownup? A better portal, a place to which we gravitate because, as an insider says, we’ll find more relevant fodder — without relying on “friends”? This would be a return to Yahoo’s original mission, one of cataloguing the Web, only with better technology and taste than Facebook, Google, AOL or even Microsoft’s Bing (Yahoo’s supplier of search data).

This leads to the $$ question, to Yahoo’s business model: advertising or services? With Google and now Facebook dominating the advertising space, how much room is left?

We hear Mayer is focusing Yahoo! on mobile applications. This sounds reasonable… but isn’t everyone?

In the search for a renewed identity (and profits), the question of alliances comes up. Who’s my enemy, my enemy’s enemy, irreplaceable partner/supplier, natural complement? In this regard, the Microsoft question will undoubtedly pop up again. I doubt Mayer has the utmost regard for Microsoft or for its CEO’s bullying style, but can she live without Bing? Is there an alternative? Also, what, if anything, could a healthier Yahoo! offer to Facebook or Apple?

The fun is just starting.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Data in the driver’s seat

 

Autonomous vehicles — fully or partially — will rely on a large variety of data types. And guess who is best positioned to take advantage of this enormous new business? Yep, Google is. 

The Google driveless car is an extraordinary technical achievement. To grasp the its scope, watch this video featuring a near-blind man sitting behind the wheel of an autonomous Prius as the car does the driving. Or, to get an idea of the complexity of the system, see this presentation by Sebastian Thrun (one of the main architects of Google’s self-driving car project) going through the multiple systems running inside the car.

Spectacular as it is, this public demonstration is merely the tip of the iceberg. For Google, the economics of self-driving cars lie in a vast web of data that will become a must to operate partially or fully self-driving vehicles on a massive scale. This network of data will require immense computational and storage capabilities. Consider the following needs in the context of Google’s current position in related fields.

Maps. Since the acquisition of Where2 Technologies and Keyhole Inc. in 2004, Google has been refining its mapping system over and over again (see this brief history of Google Maps). After a decade of work, Google Maps feature a rich set of layers and functions. Their mapping of the world has been supplemented by crowdsourcing systems that allow corrections as well as the creation of city maps where data do not exist. Street View has been launched in 2007 and more than 5 million miles of metropolitan area have been covered. Today, maps are augmented with satellite imagery, 3D, 45-degree aerial views, buildings and infrastructure renderings. All this is now merged, you can plunge from a satellite view to the street level.

Google’s goal is building the most complete an reliable map system in the world. Gradually, the company replaces geo-data from third party suppliers with data collected by its own crews around the world. To get an idea of how fast Google progresses, consider the following: In 2008, Google mapping covered 22 countries and offered 13 million miles with driving directions. In 2012, 187 countries where covered, 26 million miles with driving directions, including 29 countries with turn-by-turn directions. On the chart below, you can also see the growing areas of Google-sourced maps (in green) as opposed to licensed data (in red):

Apple’s failure in maps shows that, regardless of the amount of money invested, experience remains a key element. In California and India, Google maintains a staff of hundreds if not thousands of people manually checking key spots in large metropolitan areas and correcting errors. They rely on users whose individual suggestions are manually checked, using Street View imagery as shown here (the operator drags the 360° Street View image to verify signs at an intersection — click to enlarge.)

Google’s engineers even developed algorithms aimed at correcting slight misalignments between “tiles” (pieces of satellite imagery stitched together) that could result from… tectonic plates movement — it could happen when two pictures are taken two years apart. Such accuracy is not a prerequisite for current navigation, but it could be important for autonomous cars that will depend heavily on ultra-precise (think what centimers/inches mean when cars are close on the road) mapping of streets and infrastructures.

But, one might object, Google is not the only company providing geo-data and great mapping services. True: The Dutch company Tom-tom, or the Chicago-based Navteq have been doing this for years. As geo-data became strategically important, Tom-tom acquired TeleAtlas for $2.9bn in 2008, and Nokia bought Navteq in 2007. But Google intends to move one step ahead by merging its mapping and imagery technologies with its search capabilities. Like in this image:

Accurate, usable and data-rich maps are one thing. Now, when you consider the variety of data needed for autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, the task becomes even more enormous. The list goes on:

Traffic conditions will be a key element. It’s pointless to envision fleets of self-driving, or assisted-driving cars without systems to manage traffic. These goes along with infrastructure development. For instance, as  Dr. Kara Kockelman, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin explained to me, in the future, we might see substantial infrastructure renovation aimed at accommodating autonomous vehicles (or vehicles set on self-driving mode). Dedicated highway corridors would be allocated to “platoons” of cars driving close together, in a faster and safer way, than manned cars. Intersections, she said, are also a key challenge as they are responsible for most traffic jams (and a quarter of accidents). With the advent of autonomous vehicles, we can see cars taken over by intersection management systems that will regroup them in platoons and feed them seamlessly in intersecting traffic flows, like in this spectacular simulation. If traffic lights are still needed, they will change every five or six seconds just to optimize the flow.

Applied to millions of vehicles, traffic and infrastructure management will turn into a gigantic data and communication problem. Again, Google might be the only entity able to write the required software and to deploy the data centers to run it. Its millions of servers will be of great use to handle weather information, road conditions (as cars might be able to monitor their actual friction on the road and transmit the data to following vehicles, or detect humidity and temperature change), parking data and fuel availability (gas or electricity). And we can even think of merging all this with day-to-day life elements such as individual calendars, commuting patterns and geolocating people through their cell phones.

If the data collection and crunching tasks can conceivably be handled by a Google-like player, communications remain an issue. “There is not enough overlap between car-to-car communication and in other fields”, Sven Beiker, director Center for Automotive Research  (CARS) at Stanford told me (see his recent lecture about The Future if the Car). He is actually echoing executives from Audi (who made a strategic deal with Google), BMW and Ford; together at the Mobile World Congress, they were critical of cell phone carriers’ inability to provide the right 4G (LTE) infrastructure to handle the amount of data required by future vehicles.

Finally, there is the question of an operating system for cars. Experts are divided. Sven Beiker believes the development of self-driving vehicles will depend more on communication protocols than on an OS per se. Others believe that Google, with its fleet of self-driving Priuses criss-crossing California, is building the first OS dedicated to autonomous vehicles. At some point, the search giant could combine its mapping, imagery and local search capabilities with the accumulation of countless self-driven miles, along with scores of specific situations “learned” by the cars’ software. The value thus created would be huge, giving Google a decisive position in yet another field. The search company could become the main provider of both systems and data for autonomous or semi autonomous cars.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Apple is Losing The War – Of Words

 

Besides its ads, Apple says very little, confident numbers will do the talking. This no longer works as others have seized the opportunity to drive the narrative. 

The day before Samsung’s big Galaxy S4 announcement, Apple’s VP of Marketing, Phil Schiller, sat down for an interview with Reuters and promptly committed what Daring Fireball’s John Gruber calls an unforced error:

“…the news we are hearing this week [is] that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is being rumored to ship with an OS that is nearly a year old,” [Schiller] said, “Customers will have to wait to get an update.”

Not so, as Gruber quickly corrects:

But it ends up the S4 is — to Samsung’s credit — shipping with Android 4.2.2, the latest available version. Not sure why Schiller would speculate on something like this based solely on rumors.

To Samsung’s delight, we can be sure, the interview received wide coverage in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, just hours before the S4 was unveiled, complete with the month-old Android operating system.

This didn’t go over well. Even before the “year old Android version” was exposed as unfounded conjecture, reactions to Schiller’s trash talk were uniformly negative. Apple was accused of being on the defensive.

But, the true-believers ask, isn’t this something of a double-standard? What about the trash talk Samsung ads that depicted the iPhone as old-fashioned and its users as either cult sheep or doddering golden agers, weren’t they also a form of defensiveness? Why were Samsung’s mean-spirited ads seen as fun and creative, while Schiller’s slight misstep is called “defensive”?

Yes, Apple is held to a (well earned) different standard. Once a challenger with an uncertain future, Apple has become The Man. Years ago, it could productively poke fun at Microsoft in the great I’m a Mac, You’re a PC campaign (the full series of ads is here), but the days of taking potshots at the incumbent are over. Because of its position at the top, Apple should have the grace to not trash its competitors, especially when the digs are humorless and further weakened by error.

Schiller’s faux pas will soon be forgotten — it was a minor infraction, a five yard penalty — but it stoked my enduring frustration with a different sort of Apple-speak characteristic: The way Apple execs abuse words such as incredible“, “great“, “best when they’re discussing the company’s products and business.

My accusation of language molestation needs examples. Citing a page from W. Edwards Deming’s gospel, In God We Trust, Everyone Else Brings Data, I downloaded a handful of Apple earnings calls, such as this one, courtesy of Seeking Alpha, and began to dig.

[Speaking of language faux pas, Deming’s saying was shamelessly and badly appropriated — without attribution — by Google’s Eric Schmidt in a talk at MIT.)

Looking just for the words that emanated from the horses’ mouths, I stripped the intros and outros and the question parts of the Q&As, and pasted into Pages (which has, sadly, lain fallow since January 2009).  Pages has a handy Search function (in the Edit > Find submenu) that compiles a list of all occurrences of a word in a document; here’s what I found… .

  • Across the five earnings statements, some form of the word “incredible” appears 7, 9, 9, 11 and 9 times. The Search function offers a handy snippet display so you can check the context in which the word was used:

  • “Tremendous”, in its various forms, appears 12 times.
  • Amazing: 8
  • Strong: 58
  • Thrilled: 13
  • Maniacally focused: 2
  • All told, “great” appears 70 times. A bit more than half are pathetic superlatives (“great products”, “great progress”, “we feel great about…”), some are innocuous (“greater visibility”), but there’s an interesting twist: The snippet display showed that six were part of the phrase “Greater China”:

“Greater” or not, China is mentioned 71 times, much more than any other country or region I checked (Korea =  1, Japan = 6, Europe = 12).

(In the interest of warding off accusations of a near-obsessive waste of energy, I used a command line program to generate some of these numbers. Android? give me a second…4. Google=0, Facebook=4, Samsung=2.)

Now let’s try some “sad” words:

  • Disappoint: 0
  • Weak: 7. Six of these were part of “weak dollar”; the other was “weak PC market”. By contrast, only five or six of the 58 “strongs” referred to the dollar; the rest were along the lines of “strong iPad sales”.
  • Bad: 0
  • Fail: 0

The dissection can go on and on, but let’s end it with a comparison between more and less . Eliminating instances of less as a suffix (“wireless”), the result shows a remarkable unbalance: morewins each of the five sessions with a consistently lopsided score: 28 to 3…more or less.

But, you’ll object, what’s wrong with being positive?

Nothing, but this isn’t about optimism, it’s about hyperbole and the abuse of language. Saying “incredible” too many times leads to incredulity. Saying “maniacally focused” at all is out of place and gauche in an earnings call. One doesn’t brag about one’s performance in the boudoir; let happy partners sing your praise.

When words become empty, the listener loses faith in the speaker. Apple has lost control of the narrative; the company has let others define its story. This is a war of words and Apple is proving to be inept at verbal warfare.

In another of his sharply worded analyses titled Ceding the Crown, John Gruber makes the same point, although from a different angle:

The desire for the “Oh, how the mighty Apple has fallen” narrative is so strong that the narrative is simply being stated as fact, evidence to the contrary be damned. It’s reported as true simply because they want it to be true. They’re declaring “The King is dead; long live the King” not because the king has actually died or abdicated the throne, but because they’re bored with the king and want to write a new coronation story.

I agree with the perception, but blaming the media rarely produces results, we shouldn’t point our criticism in the wrong direction. The media have their priorities, which more often than not veer in the direction of entertainment passed as fair and balanced information (see Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman). If Apple won’t feed them an interesting, captivating story, they’ll find it elsewhere, even in rumors and senseless hand-wringing.

Attacking competitors, pointing to their weaknesses, and trumpeting one’s achievements is better done by hired media assassins. A company, directly or through a PR firm, engages oft-quoted consultants who provide the required third-party stats, barbs, and encomiums. This isn’t theorizing, I once was a director at a company, one of many, that used such an arrangement to good effect.

A brief anecdote: When Microsoft was Microsoft, Waggener Edstrom, the company’s PR powerhouse, was an exemplary propagandist. I distinctly remember a journalist from a white-shoe East Coast business publication coming to my office more than twenty years ago, asking very pointed questions. I asked my own questions in return and realized that the individual didn’t quite know the meaning of certain terms that he was throwing around. A bit of hectoring and cajoling, and the individual finally admitted that the questions were talking points provided by the Seattle PR firm. A few years later, I got a comminatory phone call from one of the firm’s founders. My offense? I had made an unflattering quip about Microsoft when it was having legal troubles with Apple (the IP battle that was later settled as part of the 1997 “investment” in Apple and Steve Jobs). PR firms have long memories and sharp knives.

The approach may seem cynical, but it’s convenient and effective. The PR firm maintains a net (and that’s the right word) of relationships with the media and their pilot fish. If it has the talent of a Waggener Edstrom, it provides sound strategic advice, position papers, talking points, and freeze-dried one-liners.

Furthermore, a PR firm has the power of providing access. I once asked a journalist friend how his respected newspaper could have allowed one of its writers to publish a fellacious piece that described, in dulcet tones, a worldwide Microsoft R&D tour by the company’s missus dominicus. “Access, Jean-Louis, access. That’s the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview…”

Today, look at the truly admirable job Frank Shaw does for Microsoft. Always on Twitter, frequently writing learned and assertive pieces for the company’s official blog. By the way, where’s Apple’s blog?

The popular notion is that Apple rose to the top without these tools and tactics, but that’s not entirely true. Dear Leader was a one-man propagandastaffel, maintaining his own small network of trusted friends in the media. Jobs also managed to get exemptions from good-behavior rules, exemptions that seem to have expired with him…

Before leaving us, Jobs famously admonished “left-behind” Apple execs to think for themselves instead of trying to guess what he would have done. Perhaps it’s time for senior execs to rethink the kind of control they want to exercise on what others say about Apple. Either stay the old course and try to let the numbers do the talking, or go out and really fight the war of words. Last week’s misstep didn’t belong to either approach.

One last word: In the two trading days bracketing the Samsung S4 launch Schiller clumsily attempted to trash, Apple shares respectively gained 1%, followed by a 2.58% jump the day after the intro. Schiller could have said nothing before the launch and, today, let others point to early criticism of the S4′s apparent featuritis.

JLG@mondaynote.com

More iWatch Fun

 

When looking at the potential for a really smart watch, the idea of an Apple iWatch looks almost sensible. Still, there is a long way between the attractive idea and stuffing the required computer power in a wristwatch.

As I somberly contemplate the death of personal privacy, our being spied upon everywhere, at all times (for our own good, you understand), a tweet from an ex-coworker known for his stiletto wit evokes a welcome smile:

Frank is referring to Nick Hayek Jr., the cigar-wielding head of Swatch Group AG (and Zino Davidoff doppelgänger):

In a Bloomberg article (from which the above photo is extracted), Hayek dismisses the iWatch rumors:

“Personally, I don’t believe it’s the next revolution,” the chief of the largest Swiss watchmaker said at a press conference on annual results in Grenchen, Switzerland. “Replacing an iPhone with an interactive terminal on your wrist is difficult. You can’t have an immense display.”

Hayek’s pronouncement triggered many sharp reactions, such as this history lesson from another sharp tweeter:

As Kontra (a “veteran design and management surgeon”) reminds us, Palm CEO Ed Colligan once famously pooh-poohed the unannounced iPhone

We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone, […] PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.

Colligan’s brush-off wasn’t the first time, or the last, that Apple’s “unauthorized intrusions” were decried by industry incumbents and arbiters of business taste:

  • The iPod: A doomed foray into the saturated, profitless market of commodity MP3 players.
  • iTunes: Single tracks for 99 cents? Not a chance against free online music sites.
  • Apple Stores: Another folly, zero experience in the cutthroat and manpower intensive retail business.
  • iPhone: The status quotidians scoff.
  • Homegrown ARM-based processors: A billion dollar mistake.
  • iPad: Ridiculous name. Steve Ballmer derides its lack of keyboard and mouse.

This isn’t to deny that the Apple Midas Touch is occasionally fat fingered. Prior to its launch, Steve Jobs touted MobileMe as Exchange For The Rest of Us; afterwards, he told the MobileMe team they should “hate each other for letting each other down”. Last year, Tim Cook had no choice but to apologize for the iMaps fiasco (and then showed a couple Apple executives the door).

So how would this hypothetical iWatch play out? Can Apple re-invent a known device à la the iPod, or are they venturing into territory without a map (or, one can’t resist, with an iMap)?

First, a brief look at today’s watches, smart and not.

After five centuries of improvements to their time keeping mechanisms (or movements), mechanical watches are no longer judged for their temporal accuracy, but for their beauty and, just as important, for the number and ingeniousness of their complications — what non-horologists would call “additional functions”. It’s not enough to just tell the time, watches must display the phases of the moon and positions of the planets, function as a  chronograph, provide a perpetual calendar… The moniker grande complication is applied to the most advanced, such as this one from the Gallet company (founded in 1466):

These complications come at a price: For $300k you can pick up the double-faced Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon with its 2800-star celestial chart. The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, which holds the record with 36 complications and 1400 parts, will set you back $2.7M:

These luxury watches function more as engineering marvels than utilitarian timepieces, and, accordingly, they’re worn as adornments — and status symbols.

The more common electronic watch, which uses a precise quartz oscillator and typically has no moving parts, hasn’t entirely killed the mechanical watch, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Electronic watchmakers, aided by the tiny microprocessors embedded in many of these devices, have piled on even more more functions — calculators, multiple repeating alarms, even circular slide rules…it’s simply an exercise in the proverbial mere matter of software.

But each new function introduces UI complexity, as this page from the instruction manual for my Seiko multi-function watch establishes:

Most of the manual’s 33 pages are in the same vein. As a result, normal humans find these electronic complications baffling and leave most of the functions unmolested.

And now we have the smartwatch, a true computer that’s strapped to your wrist. Today’s smartwatch will tell you the time and run some rudimentary applications, but its primary role is to act as an extension of the smartphone that you’ve paired through Bluetooth. A phone call comes in, your watch shows you the number; an email message arrives, your watch scrolls the sender’s address; if the music you’re streaming on your phone is too quiet, just tap your watch to turn it up…at least in theory.

These are all good ideas, but, as the NYT’s David Pogue found after test driving a sampling of these devices, their execution leaves something to be desired. His conclusion:

…you have to wonder if there’s a curse on this blossoming category. Why are these smartwatches so buggy, half-baked and delayed?
The Casio and Martian watches are worth considering. But if you ask the other watches what time it is, they’ll tell you: too soon.

So, again, where does the putative iWatch fit into all of this?

Let’s start with the UI. If we just regard the traditional chronological functions (date and time formats, alarms, stopwatch) an iPhone-like touch interface, albeit on a smaller screen, would easily eclipse the clunky buttons-along-the perimeter controls on my Seiko. For the more advanced “smart” functions, one assumes that Apple won’t be satisfied unless the user experience far exceeds the competition. (Of the five smartwatches that Pogue reviews, only one, the Cukoo, has even a hint of touch screen capability.)

Then there’s the matter of overall style. This isn’t a fair fight; there’s something viscerally compelling about a traditional mechanical watch with exposed movement. Even on the low end of the market you can find a mechanical watch that displays its inner beauty. Nonetheless, we can trust Sir Jony to rise to the challenge, to imagine the kind of style we’ve come to expect.

There’s also the battery question. Will the iWatch suffer from having a two or three days battery life as suggested by “[s]ources close to Apples [sic] project team”? Leaving aside conjectures about the anatomical location whence emerged these sources’ information, two thoughts come up…

First, it’s a safe assumption that the target audience for the iWatch are iDevice owners that Apple has “trained” (subjugated, critics will say) to charge their devices at night. For them, charging the iWatch, as well, won’t be a dealbreaker. The Lightning connector and charger for an iPhone or iPad should be small enough to fit a largish watch. Or perhaps the addition of the iWatch to the iDevice constellation will convince Apple to incorporate wireless charging (despite the diffidence of Phil Schiller, Apple’s VP of marketing).

Second, some electronic watches don’t need batteries at all. In Seiko’s Kinetic line, the kinetic motion of the wearer’s hand drives a tiny generator that feeds electricity into a capacitor for storage. (For the inert watch wearer, stem winding works as well. In a clever twist, some of newer models preserve the stored charge by halting the motion of the hands when the watch isn’t being worn.) It’s unclear whether the energy captured from hand movements will suffice to feed an ambitious Apple smartwatch, but the technology exists.

Turning to more advanced functionality: Will the iWatch be an iOS device? I think it’s very likely. That doesn’t mean that the iWatch will be an iPhone/iPod Touch, only smaller. Instead, and as we see with today’s Apple TV, the iWatch will enrich the iOS ecosystem: Reasonably useful on its own, but most important as a way to increase the value/enjoyment of other iDevices…at least for now.

Eventually, and as I’ve written here several times, I believe the Apple TV will become a first class citizen, it will have its own versions of apps that were written for the iPhone/iPad, as well as apps that are for TV alone. With iOS as the lingua franca, the iWatch could be treated with the same respect.

There are plenty of examples of apps that would work on a very small screen, either in conjunction with existing data (calendar, address book, stock market, iMessage, weather) or as a remote for other devices, including non-Apple products (the Nest thermostat comes to mind).

We should also consider biometric applications. The intimate contact of the iWatch makes it a natural carrier for the ever-improving sensors we find in today’s health monitors, devices that measure and record heart rate and perspiration during a workout, or that monitor sleep patterns and analyze food intake. What we don’t find, in these existing gadgets, is the ability to download new apps. An iWatch with health sensors coupled with the App Store would open whole new health and wellness avenues.

Finally, there’s (always) the money question. Would our mythical iWatch sell in sufficient volume — and with a high enough margin — to make it a significant product line for Apple? Given that watches easily sell for hundreds of dollars, and that we would almost certainly use an Apple iWatch more often and for more purposes than an Apple TV, the volume/margin question isn’t too hard to answer.

Back to reality, translating a fantasy into a real product is by no means a sure thing. A pleasant, instantaneous user experience requires computing power. Computing power requires energy; energy means battery drain and heat dissipation. These are challenges for real grown-ups. And sometimes a grown-up has to make the vital No We Won’t Do This decision that separates bloated demi-failures from truly elegant genre-creating breakthroughs.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Growing Forces in Mobile

 

As seen last week in Barcelona, the mobile industry is red hot. The media sector will have to work harder to capture its share of that growth.

The 2013 edition of the Mobile World Congress held last week in Barcelona was as large as the biggest auto-show in the world: 1500 exhibitors and a crowd of 72,000 attendees from 200 countries. The mobile industry is roaring like never before. But the news media industry lags and will have to fight hard to stay in the game. Astonishingly, only two media companies deigned to show up: Pearson with its huge education business accounting for 75% of its 2012 revenue (vs. 7% for its Financial Times unit); and Agence France-Presse which is entering the customized application market. No other big media brand in sight, no trade organizations either. Apparently, the information sector is about to miss the mobile train.

Let’s begin with data that piqued my interest, from AT Kearney surveys for the GSM Association.

Individual mobile subscribers: In 2012, the worldwide number of mobile subscribers reached 3.2 billion. A billion subscribers was added in the last four years. As the world population is expected to grow by 1.1% per year between 2008 and 2017, the mobile sector enjoyed a 8.3% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) for the 2008-2012 period. For the 2012 – 2017 interval the expected CAGR is 4.2%. The 4 billion subscribers mark will be passed in 2018. By that time, 80% of the global population will be connected via a mobile device.

The rise of the machines. When machine-to-machine (M2M) connections are taken into account, growth becomes even more spectacular: In 2012, there were 6.8 billion active SIM cards, 3% of them being M2M connections. In 2017, there will be 9.7 billion active SIM cards and the share of M2M connections will account for 13% with almost 1.3 billion devices talking to each other.
The Asia-Pacific region will account for half of the connection growth, both for individual subscriptions and M2M.

We’ll now turn to stats that could benefit the media industry.

Mobile growth will be mostly driven by data usage. In 2012, the volume of data exchanged through mobile devices amounted to .9 exabytes per month (1 exabyte = 1bn gigabytes), this is more than the all preceding years combined! By 2017, it is expected to reach 11.2 exabytes, that’s a 66% CAGR!

A large part of this volume will come from the deployment of 4G (LTE) networks. Between now and 2017, deploying LTE technology will result in a 4X increase in connection speeds.

For the 2012 – 2017 period, bandwidth distribution is expected to grow as follows:

M2M:......... +89% 
Video:....... +75% 
Gaming:...... +62% 
Other data:...+55% 
File sharing: +34% 
VoIP:........ +34%

Obviously, the huge growth of video streaming (+75%) points to a great opportunity for the media industry as users will tend to watch news capsules on-the-go in the same way they today look at a mobile web sites or an app (these two will be part of the 55% annual growth).

The growing social mobility will also be an issue for news media. Here are the key figures for today in active mobile users

Facebook:...680m 
Twitter:....120m 
LinkedIn:....46m 
Foursquare:..30m

Still, as important as it is, social usage only accounts for 17 minutes per day, vs. 25 minutes for internet browsing and a mere 12 minutes for voice calls. Most likely, the growth of video will impact the use of social networks as Facebook collects more and more videos directly uploaded from smartphones.

A large part of this growth will be driven by the rise of inexpensive smartphones. Last week in Barcelona, the largest stand was obviously Samsung’s. But a huge crowd also gathered around Huawei or ZTE showing sophisticated Android-powered smartphones — at much lower prices. This came as a surprise to many westerners like me who don’t have access to these Chinese devices. And for emerging markets, Firefox is coming with a HTML5 operating system that looked surprisingly good.

In years to come, the growing number of operating systems, screen sizes and features will be a challenge. (At the MWC, the trend was definitely in favor of large screens, read this story in Engadget.) An entire hall was devoted to applications — and software aimed at producing apps in a more standardized, economical fashion. As a result, we might see three approaches to delivering contents on mobile:
- The simplest way will be mobile sites based on HTML5 and responsive design; more features will be embedded in web applications.
- The second stage will consist of semi-native apps, quickly produced using standardized tools, allowing fast updates and adaptations to a broad range of devices.
- The third way will involve expensive deep-coded native apps aimed at supporting sophisticated graphics; they will mainly be deployed by the gaming industry.

In upcoming Monday Notes, we will address two majors mobile industry trends not tied to the media industry: Connected Living (home-car-city), a sector likely to account for most machine-to-machine use; and digital education taking advantage of a happy combination of more affordable handsets and better bandwidth.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Google’s Red Guide to the Android App Store

 

As they approach the one million apps mark, smartphone and tablet app stores leave users stranded in thick, uncharted forests. What are Google and Apple waiting?

Last week, Google made the following announcement:

Mountain View, February 24th, 2013 — As part of an industry that owes so much to Steve Jobs, we remember him on this day, the 58th anniversary of his birth, with great sadness but also with gratitude. Of Steve’s many achievements, we particularly want to celebrate the Apple App Store, the venerable purveyor of iPhone software. 

Introduced in 2008, the App Store was an obvious and natural descendant of iTunes. What wasn’t obvious or foreseen was that the App Store would act as a catalyst for an entire market segment, that it would metamorphose the iPhone from mere smartphone to app phone. This metamorphosis provided an enormous boost to the mobile industry worldwide, a boost that has benefitted us all and Google more than most.

But despite the success of the app phone there’s no question that today’s mobile application stores, our own Google Play included, are poorly curated. No one seems to be in charge, there’s no responsibility for reviewing and grading apps, there’s no explanation of the criteria that goes into the “Editors’ Picks”, app categorization is skin deep and chaotic.

Today, we want to correct this fault and, at the same time, pay homage to Steve’s elegant idea by announcing a new service: The Google Play Red Guide. Powered by Google’s human and computer resources, the Red Guide will help customers identify the trees as they wander through the forest of Android apps. The Red Guide will provide a new level of usefulness and fun for users — and will increase the revenue opportunities for application developers.

With the Google Play Red Guide, we’ll bring an end to the era of the uncharted, undocumented, and poorly policed mobile app store.

The Red Guide takes its name from another great high-tech company, Michelin. At the turn of the 20th century, Michelin saw it needed to promote automotive travel in order to stimulate tire sales. It researched, designed and published great maps, something we can all relate to. To further encourage travel, Michelin published Le Guide Rouge, a compendium of hotels and restaurant. A hundred years later, the Michelin Red Guide is still considered the world’s standard; its inspectors are anonymous and thus incorruptible, their opinions taken seriously. Even a single star award (out of three) can put an otherwise unknown restaurant on the map — literally.

Our Red Guide will comprise the following:

- “Hello, World”, a list of indispensable apps for the first time Android customer (or iPhone apostate), with tips, How-To guides, and FAQs.
- “Hot and Not”. Reviews of new apps and upgrades — and the occasional downgrade.
- “In Our Opinion”. This is the heart of the Guide, a catalogue of reviews written by a select group of Google Play staff who have hot line access to Google’s huge population of in-house subject matter experts. The reviews will be grouped into sections: Productivity, e-Learning, Games, Arts & Creativity, Communication, Food & Beverage, Healthcare, Spirituality, Travel, Entertainment, Civics & Philanthropy, Google Glass, with subcategories for each.

Our own involvement in reviewing Android apps is a novel — perhaps even a controversial — approach, but it’s much needed. We could have taken the easy path: Let users and third-parties provide the reviews. But third party motives are sometimes questionable, their resources quickly exhausted. And with the Android Store inventory rapidly approaching a million titles, our users deserve a trustworthy guide, a consistent voice to lead them to the app that fits.

We created the Red Guide because we care about our Android users, we want them to “play safe” and be productive, and we feel there’s no better judge of whether an application will degrade your phone’s performance or do what it claims than the people who created and maintain the Android framework. For developers, we’re now in a position to move from a jungle to a well-tended garden where the best work will be recognized, and the not-so-great creations will be encouraged to raise their game.

We spent a great deal of time at Google identifying exactly the right person to oversee this delicate proposition…and now we can reveal the real reason why Google’s Motorola division hired noted Macintosh evangelist, auteur, and investor Guy Kawasaki as an advisor: Guy will act as the Editor in Chief of the Google Play Red Guide.

With Guy at the helm, you can expect the same monkish dedication and unlimited resources we deployed when we created Google Maps.

As we welcome everyone to the Google Play Red Guide, we again thank Steve Jobs for his leadership and inspiration. Our algorithms tell us he would have approved.

The Red Guide is an open product and will be published on the Web at AppStoreRedguide.com as well as in e-book formats (iBookstore and Kindle formats pending approval) for open multi-platform enjoyment.
——– 

No need to belabor the obvious, you’ve already figured out that this is all a fiction. Google is no better than Apple when it comes to their mobile application store. Both companies let users and developers fend for themselves, lost in a thick forest of apps.

That neither company seems to care about their online stores’ customers makes no sense: Smartphone users download more apps than songs and videos combined, and the trend isn’t slowing. According to MobiThinking:

IDC predicts that global downloads will reach 76.9 billion in 2014 and will be worth US$35 billion.

Unfortunately, Apple appears to be resting on its laurels, basking in its great App Store numbers: 40 billion served, $8B paid to developers. Perhaps the reasoning goes like this: iTunes served the iPod well; the App Store can do the same for the iPhone. It ain’t broke; no fix needed.

But serving up music and movies — satisfying the user’s established taste with self-contained morsels of entertainment — is considerably different from leading the user to the right tool for a job that may be only vaguely defined.

Apple’s App Store numbers are impressive… but how would these numbers look like if someone else, Google for example, showed the kind of curation leadership Apple fails to assert?

JLG@mondaynote.com

Google News: The Secret Sauce

 

A closer look at Google’s patent for its news retrieval algorithm reveals a greater than expected emphasis on quality over quantity. Can this bias stay reliable over time?

Ten years after its launch, Google News’ raw numbers are staggering: 50,000 sources scanned, 72 editions in 30 languages. Google’s crippled communication machine, plagued by bureaucracy and paranoia, has never been able to come up with tangible facts about its benefits for the news media it feeds on. It’s official blog merely mentions “6 billion visits per month” sent to news sites and Google News claims to connect “1 billion unique users a week to news content” (to put things in perspective, the NYT.com or the Huffington Post are cruising at about 40 million UVs per month). Assuming the clicks are sent to a relatively fresh news page bearing higher value advertising, the six billion visits can translate into about $400 million per year in ad revenue. (This is based on a $5 to $6 revenue per 1,000 pages, i.e. a few dollars in CPM per single ad, depending on format, type of selling, etc.) That’s a very rough estimate. Again: Google should settle the matter and come up with accurate figures for its largest markets. (On the same subject, see a previous Monday Note: The press, Google, its algorithm, their scale.)

But how exactly does Google News work? What kind of media does its algorithm favor most? Last week, the search giant updated its patent filing with a new document detailing the thirteen metrics it uses to retrieve and rank articles and sources for its news service. (Computerworld unearthed the filing, it’s here).

What follows is a summary of those metrics, listed in the order shown in the patent filing, along with a subjective appreciation of their reliability, vulnerability to cheating, relevancy, etc.

#1. Volume of production from a news source:

A first metric in determining the quality of a news source may include the number of articles produced by the news source during a given time period [week or month]. [This metric] may be determined by counting the number of non-duplicate articles produced by the news source over the time period [or] counting the number of original sentences produced by the news source.

This metric clearly favors production capacity. It benefits big media companies deploying large staffs. But the system can also be cheated by content farms (Google already addressed these questions); new automated content creation systems are gaining traction, many of them could now easily pass the Turing Test.

#2. Length of articles. Plain and simple: the longer the story (on average), the higher the source ranks. This is bad news for aggregators whose digital serfs cut, paste, compile and mangle abstracts of news stories that real media outlets produce at great expense.

#3. “The importance of coverage by the news source”. To put it another way, this matches the volume of coverage by the news source against the general volume of text generated by a topic. Again, it rewards large resource allocation to a given event. (In New York Times parlance, such effort is called called “flooding the zone”.)

#4. The “Breaking News Score”:   

This metric may measure the ability of the news source to publish a story soon after an important event has occurred. This metric may average the “breaking score” of each non-duplicate article from the news source, where, for example, the breaking score is a number that is a high value if the article was published soon after the news event happened and a low value if the article was published after much time had elapsed since the news story broke.

Beware slow moving newsrooms: On this metric, you’ll be competing against more agile, maybe less scrupulous staffs that “publish first, verify later”. This requires a smart arbitrage by the news producers. Once the first headline has been pushed, they’ll have to decide what’s best: Immediately filing a follow-up or waiting a bit and moving a longer, more value-added story that will rank better in metrics #2 and #3? It depends on elements such as the size of the “cluster” (the number of stories pertaining to a given event).

#5. Usage Patterns:

Links going from the news search engine’s web page to individual articles may be monitored for usage (e.g., clicks). News sources that are selected often are detected and a value proportional to observed usage is assigned. Well known sites, such as CNN, tend to be preferred to less popular sites (…). The traffic measured may be normalized by the number of opportunities readers had of visiting the link to avoid biasing the measure due to the ranking preferences of the news search engine.

This metric is at the core of Google’s business: assessing the popularity of a website thanks to the various PageRank components, including the number of links that point to it.

#6. The “Human opinion of the news source”:

Users in general may be polled to identify the newspapers (or magazines) that the users enjoy reading (or have visited). Alternatively or in addition, users of the news search engine may be polled to determine the news web sites that the users enjoy visiting. 

Here, things get interesting. Google clearly states it will use third party surveys to detect the public’s preference among various medias — not only their website, but also their “historic” media assets. According to the patent filing, the evaluation could also include the number of Pulitzer Prizes the organization collected and the age of the publication. That’s for the known part. What lies behind the notion of “Human opinion” is a true “quality index” for news sources that is not necessarily correlated to their digital presence. Such factors clearly favors legacy media.

# 7. Audience and traffic. Not surprisingly Google relies on stats coming from Nielsen Netratings and the like.

#8. Staff size. The bigger a newsroom is (as detected in bylines) the higher the value will be. This metric has the merit of rewarding large investments in news gathering. But it might become more imprecise as “large” digital newsrooms tend now to be staffed with news repackagers bearing little added value.

#9. Numbers of news bureaus. It’s another way to favor large organizations — even though their footprint tends to shrink both nationally and abroad.

#10. Number of “original named entities”. That’s one of the most interesting metric. A “named entity is the name of a person, place or organization”. It’s the primary tool for semantic analysis.

If a news source generates a news story that contains a named entity that other articles within the same cluster (hence on the same topic) do not contain, this may be an indication that the news source is capable of original reporting.

Of course, some cheaters insert misspelled entities to create “false” original entities and fool the system (Google took care of it). But this metric is a good way to reward original source-finding.

#11. The “breadth” of the news source. It pertains to the ability of a news organizations to cover a wide range of topics.

#12. The global reach of the news sources. Again, it favors large media who are viewed, linked, quoted, “liked”, tweeted from abroad.

This metric may measure the number of countries from which the news site receives network traffic. In one implementation consistent with the principles of the invention, this metric may be measured by considering the countries from which known visitors to the news web site are coming (e.g., based at least in part on the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of those users that click on the links from the search site to articles by the news source being measured). The corresponding IP addresses may be mapped to the originating countries based on a table of known IP block to country mappings.

#13. Writing style. In the Google world, this means statistical analysis of contents against a huge language model to assess “spelling correctness, grammar and reading levels”.

What conclusions can we draw? This enumeration clearly shows Google intends to favor legacy media (print or broadcast news) over pure players, aggregators or digital native organizations. All the features recently added, such as Editor’s pick, reinforce this bias. The reason might be that legacy media are less prone to tricking the algorithm. For once, a know technological weakness becomes an advantage.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

iPad and File Systems: Failure of Empathy

 

The iPad placed a clear bet on simplicity — and was criticized for it. The bet won. But now, can the iPad evolve toward more business applications without sacrificing its simplicity, without becoming a “fridge-toaster”?

Three years ago, the iPad came out. The device was an immediate hit with customers and (most) critics. Steve Jobs’ latest — and, unfortunately, last — creation truly deserved the oft-abused game changer moniker.

But, as always, there were grumblings up in the cheap seats. As Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design observed:

“Following along on Twitter I was seeing things like ‘underwhelming’, ‘meh’ , ‘it’s not open’, ‘it’s just a big iPhone’, etc. And most of this stuff was coming from people who design and build interactive experiences.”

Monteiro penned a sharp, relevant response to the naysayers. Titled “The Failure of Empathy“, his post is summarized by this picture:

A generation ago, geeks were the arbiters of taste in the world of personal computing. Programmers, designers, hobbyists and tinkerers…these were the inhabitants of “user space”, and we built computers with them in mind. By designing the Apple ][ for himself (and his fellow travelers) Steve Wozniak hit the bull’s eye of a large, untapped target.

Today, geeks are but a smallish subset of computer users. Their (typically exaggerated) negative comments may have some sting if you’re responsible for engineering the “brain dead” backing store for a windowing system, but in the real world, no one cares about “byte sex” or “loop unrolling”. What counts is how non-technical users think, feel, and respond. Again, from Monteiro’s post:

“As an industry, we need to understand that not wanting root access doesn’t make you stupid. It simply means you do not want root access. Failing to comprehend this is not only a failure of empathy, but a failure of service.”

This was written in February 2010; I doubt that anyone at the time thought the iPad would ascend to such heights so quickly: 65.7M sold in 2012, 121M since the 2010 debut, rising even faster than the iPhone.

This is all well and good, but with success comes side effects. As the iPad gets used in ways its progenitors didn’t anticipate, another failure of empathy looms: Ignoring the needs of people who want to perform “complicated” tasks on their iPads.

When the iPad was introduced, even the most obliging reviewers saw the device as a vehicle for consumption, not creation. David Pogue in the New York Times:

“…the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on.”

This is still true…but that hasn’t stopped users from trying — struggling — to use their iPads for more ambitious tasks: Building rich media presentations and product brochures, preparing course material, even running a business. Conventional wisdom tells us that these are tasks that fall into the province of “true” personal computers, but these driven users can’t help themselves, they want to do it all on their iPads. They want the best of both worlds: The power of a PC but without its size, weight, (relative) unresponsiveness, and, certainly, price.

The evidence is all around us. Look at how many people in cafés, offices and airport lounges use a keyboard with their iPad, such as this Origami combo:

Or the Logitech Keyboard Cover:

Both keyboards are prominently displayed in the Apple Store. We’ll assume that shelf space isn’t doled out by lottery (or philanthropically), so these devices must be selling briskly.

Of course, this could just be anecdotal evidence. What isn’t anecdotal is that Apple itself claims that the iPad has penetrated a large proportion of Fortune 500 companies. In some of its stores, the company conducts sessions to promote the use of iPads in business applications.

I attended one such gathering last year. There was a very basic demonstration of Keynote, iPad’s presentation app, plus the testimony of a happy customer who described the usefulness of the iPad in sales situations. All quite pleasant, but the Q&A session that followed was brutal and embarrassing: How do you compose real-world, mixed-document presentation? No real answer. Why can’t the iPad access all the documents — not just iWork files — that I dropped into iCloud from my Mac? No answer there, either.

This brings us to a major iPad obstacle: On a “real” PC the file system is visible, accessible; on the iPad, it’s hidden. The act of creating, arranging, accessing files on a PC is trivial and natural. We know how to use Finder on the Mac and Explorer on Windows. We’re not perplexed by folder hierarchies: The MyGreatNovel folder might contain a lengthy set of “MGN-1″, “MGN-2″, “MGN-3″ drafts, as well as subfolders such as ArtWork, Reference, and RejectionLetters, each of which contain further subfolder refinements (RejectedByGrove, RejectedByPenguin, RejectedByRandomHouse…).

On an iPad you don’t navigate a file system but, instead, you launch an app that has it’s own trove of documents that it understands — but it can’t “see” anything else.

For example: Keynote doesn’t let you see the graphics, videos, and PDFs that you want to assemble into your presentation. Unlike on the Mac, there’s no Finder, no place where you can see “everything” at one glance. Even more important, there’s no natural way to combine heterogeneous documents into one.

On the other hand, we all know users who love the iPad for its simplicity. They can download and play music, read books, respond to email and tweets, view photos, and stream movies without having to navigate a file hierarchy. For them, the notion of a “file system” is neither natural nor trivial — it’s foreign and geeky. Why throw them into a maze of folders and files?

Apple’s decision to hide the iOS file system from iPad (and iPhone) users comforts the non-geek and is consistent with Steve Jobs’ idea that applications such as Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, iCal, and Contacts shouldn’t reveal their files and folders. Under the hood, the application stores its data in the Mac’s file system but, on the surface, the user sees appointments, photo albums and events, mailboxes and messages.

Still, some of us see this as the storage equivalent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: No File System For You!

App developers and customers keep trying. iOS apps such as GoodReader and File Manager Pro valiantly attempt to work around the iPad strictures. PhoneView will expose and manipulate your iPad’s file system (not recommended). But success with any of these apps is limited and comes at a price: The iPad’s simplicity and fluidity is long gone by the time you achieve the desired result, the multimedia brochure or HR tutorial.

This places Apple at a fork on the road. On the left is the current path: more/better/lighter/faster of the same. Only evolutionary changes to the simple and successful worldview. This is today’s trajectory, validated by history (think of the evolution of the MacBook) and strong revenue numbers.

On the right, Apple could transform the iPad so that power users can see and combine data in ways that are impossible today. This could attract business customers who are hesitant about making the plunge into the world of tablets, or who may be considering alternatives such as Microsoft’s PC/tablet combo or Android devices with Google services.

The easiest decision is no decision. Let’s have two user interfaces, two modes: The Easy mode for my Mother-In-Law, and the Pro Mode for engineers, McKinsey consultants, and investment bankers. Such dual-mode systems haven’t been very popular so far, it’s been tried without success on PCs and Macs. (Re-reading this, I realize the Mac itself could be considered such a dual-mode machine: Fire up the Terminal app and you have access to a certified Unix engine living inside…)

The drive to “pervert” the iPad is unmistakable. I think it will prove irresistible in the end. But I have trouble forming a coherent picture of an evolution that would let Apple open the iPad to more demanding users — without sacrificing its great simplicity and falling into the fridge + toaster trap.
It’s a delicate balancing act.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

The Need for a Digital “New Journalism”

 

The survival of quality news calls for a new approach to writing and reporting. Inspiration could come from blogging and magazine storytelling and also bring back memories of the 70′s New Journalism movement. 

News reporting is aging badly. Legacy newsrooms style books look stuck in a last Century formalism (I was tempted to write “formalin“). Take a newspaper, print or online. When it comes news reporting, you see the same old structure dating back to the Fifties or even earlier. For the reporter, there is the same (affected) posture of effacing his/her personality behind facts, and a stiff structure based on a string of carefully arranged paragraphs, color elements, quotes, etc.

I hate useless quotes. Most often, for journalists, such quotes are the equivalent of the time-card hourly workers have to punch. To their editor, the message is ‘Hey, I did my my job; I called x, y, z’ ; and to the  the reader, ‘Look, I’m humbly putting my personality, my point of view behind facts as stated by these people’ — people picked by him/herself, which is the primary (and unavoidable) way to twist a story. The result becomes borderline ridiculous when, after a lengthy exposé in the reporter’s voice to compress the sources’ convoluted thoughts, the line of reasoning concludes with a critical validation such as :

“Only time will tell”, said John Smith, director of the social studies at the University of Kalamazoo, consultant for the Rand Corporation, and author of “The Cognitive Deficit of Hyperactive Chimpanzees”. 

I’m barely making this up. Each time I open a carbon-based newspaper (or read its online version), I’m stuck by how old-fashioned news writing remains. Unbeknownst to the masthead (i.e. editorial top decision-makers) of legacy media, things have changed. Readers no longer demand validating quotes that weigh the narrative down. They want to be taken from A to B, with the best possible arguments, and no distraction or wasted time.

Several factors dictate an urgent evolution in the way newspapers are written.

1/ Readers’ Time Budget. People are deluged with things to read. It begins at 7:00 in the morning and ends up late into the night. The combination of professional contents (mail, reports, PowerPoint presentations) and social networking feeds, have put traditional and value-added contents (news, books) under great pressure. Multiple devices and the variable level of attention that each of them entails create more complications: a publishing house can’t provide the same content for a smartphone screen to be read in a cramped subway as for a tablet used in lean-back mode at home. More than ever, the publisher is expected to clearly arbitrate between the content that is to be provided in a concise form and the one that justifies a long, elaborate narrative. The same applies to linking and multi-layer constructs: reading a story that opens several browser tabs on a 22-inch screen is pleasant — and completely irrelevant for quick lunchtime mobile reading.

2/ Trust factor / The contract with the Brand. When I pick a version of The New York Times, The Guardian, or a major French newspaper, this act materializes my trust (and hope) in the professionalism associated with the brand. In a more granular way, it works the same for the writer. Some are notoriously sloppy, biased, or agenda-driven; others are so good than they became a brand by themselves. My point: When I read a byline I trust, I assume the reporter has performed the required legwork — that is collecting five or ten times the amount of information s/he will use in the end product. I don’t need the reporting to be proven or validated by an editing construct that harks back to the previous century. Quotes will be used only for the relevant opinion of a source, or to make a salient point, not as a feeble attempt to prove professionalism or fairness.

3 / Competition from the inside. Strangely enough, newspapers have created their own gauge to measure their obsolescence. By encouraging their writing staff to blog, they unleashed new, more personal, more… modern writing practices. Fact is, many journalists became more interesting on their own blogs than in their dedicated newspaper or magazine sections. Again, this trend evaded many editors and publishers who consider blogging to be a secondary genre, one that can be put outside a paywall, for instance. (This results in a double whammy: not only doesn’t the paper cash on blogs, but it also frustrates paid-for subscribers).

4/ The influence of magazine writing. Much better than newspapers, magazines have always done a good job capturing readers’ preferences. They’ve have always been ahead in market research, graphic design, concept and writing evolution. (This observations also applies to the weekend magazines operated by large dailies). As an example, magazine writers have been quick to adopt first person accounts that rejuvenated journalism and allowed powerful narrative. In many newspapers, authors and their editors still resists this.

Digital media needs to invent its own journalistic genres. (Note the plural, dictated by the multiplicity of usages and vectors). The web and its mobile offspring, are calling for their own New Journalism comparable to the one that blossomed in the Seventies. While the blogosphere has yet to find its Tom Wolfe, the newspaper industry still has a critical role to play: It could be at the forefront of this essential evolution in journalism. Failure to do so will only accelerate its decline.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Next Apple TV: iWatch

 

Rumors don’t actual Apple products make, see the perennial Apple TV — and the latest iWatch rumors. This is an opportunity to step back, look at Apple’s one and only love –personal computers — and use this thought to sift through rumors. 

Every week brings new rumors of soon-to-be-released Apple products. The mythical Apple TV set is always a favorite: Gossip of an Apple buyout of troubled TV maker Löwe has sent the German company’s stock soaring. We also hear of a radio streaming service that will challenge Pandora and Spotify, and there’s the usual gaggle of iPhone, iPad, and Mac variations. More interesting is the racket surrounding Apple’s “stealth” projects:  an iWatch and other wearable devices (and “racket” is the right word — see these intimations of stock manipulation).

There is a way to see through the dust, to bring some clarity, to organize our thoughts when considering what Apple might actually do, why the company would (or wouldn’t) do it, and how a rumored product would fit into the game plan.

The formula is simple: Apple engineers may wax poetic about the crystalline purity of the software architecture, execs take pride in the manufacturing chain and distribution channels (and rightly so), marketing can point to the Apple Customer Experience (when they’re not pitching regrettable Genius ads or an ill-timed campaign featuring Venus and Serena Williams). But what really floats their bots, what hardens Apple’s resolve is designing, making, and selling large numbers of personal computers, from the traditional desktop/laptop Mac, to the genre-validating iPad, and on to the iPhone — the Very Personal Computer. Everything else is an ingredient, a booster, a means to the noblest end.

Look at Apple’s report to its owners: there’s only one Profit and Loss (P&L) statement for the entire $200B business. Unlike Microsoft or HP, for example, there is no P&L by division. As Tim Cook put it:

We manage the company at the top and just have one P&L and don’t worry about the iCloud team making money and the Siri team making money…we don’t do that–we don’t believe in that…

Apple’s appreciation for the importance and great economic potential of personal computers — which were invented to act as dumb servants to help us with data storage, text manipulation, math operations — may have been, at first, more instinctual than reasoned. But it doesn’t matter; the company’s monomania, it’s collective passion is undeniable. More than any other company, Apple has made computers personal, machines we can lift with our hands and our credit cards.

With these personal computer glasses on, we see a bit more clearly.

For example: Is Apple a media distribution company? Take a look at Apple’s latest 10-Q SEC filing, especially the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section starting page 21. iTunes, now reported separately, clocked $3.7B for the last quarter of 2012.  Elsewhere, Horace Dediu sees $13.5B for the entire year. A big number indeed, and, certainly, iTunes is a key to Apple’s success: Without iTunes there would have been no iPod, Apple’s “halo product“, proof that the company could come up with a winner.  Later, iTunes begat the App Store, a service that solidified the App Phone genre.

Some misguided analysts look at the numbers and argue that Apple ought to spin off iTunes. They use the old “shareholder value” gambit, but the “value” simply isn’t there: Horace Dediu puts iTunes margins in the 15% region, well below Apple’s overall 38%. iTunes is a hugely important means to the personal computer end, but it’s not a separate business.

How about Apple as a retail company? The success of the Apple Store is stellar, a word that’s almost too weak: The Apple Stores welcomed three times more visitors than all of the Disney parks, and generated more than $20B in revenue last year — that works out to an astonishing $6000 per square foot, twice as much as the #2 shop (Tiffany and Co.). But Apple’s 400 stores aren’t a business, they only exist to create an experience that will lead to more sales, enhanced customer satisfaction, and, as a consequence, increased margins.

Apple as a software company? No. The raison d’être for OS X, iOS, iWork, and even Garage Band is to breathe life into Apple hardware. By now, the calls for Apple to see the error of its ways, to not repeat the original sin of not licensing Mac OS, to sell iOS licenses to all comers have (almost) died.
During my first visit to Apple’s hypergalactic headquarters and warehouse in February 1981, I was astonished at the sight of forklifts moving pallets of Apple ][ software. The term “ecosystem” wasn’t part of the industry lingo yet, but I had witnessed the birth of the notion.
Apple had a much harder time building a similarly rich set of applications for the Macintosh, but the lesson was eventually learned, partly due to the NeXT acquisition and the adoption of object oriented programming. We now have a multi-dimensional macrocosm — a true ecosystem — in which our various forms of personal computing work together, share data, media, services.

Where does the current Apple TV device (the black puck, not the mythical TV set) fit into this scheme? Apple TV runs on a version of iOS, and it knows how to communicate with a Bluetooth keyboard — but that doesn’t mean the device is a personal computer. Perhaps Apple will (someday) provide a TV Software Development Kit (SDK) so developers can adapt existing iOS apps or write new ones. But I still see it as a lean-back device, as opposed to a lean-forward PC.

In any case, sales of the $100 black puck don’t move the needle. Four million Apple TVs were sold in 2012; even if ten million are sold this year — and that’s a very optimistic estimate — it won’t make a noticeable difference, at least not directly. Apple TV is a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes iPhones, iPads, Macs and our iTunes libraries more valuable, but it’s still just a member of the supporting cast.

This brings us back to the putative iWatch. Computer history buffs will recall the HP 01 watch. Buoyed by the success of its handheld calculators, including the programable HP 65 with its magnetic card reader, HP convinced itself it could make a calculator watch, introduced in 1977:

A technology tour de force, fondly remembered by aging geeks, but a market failure: too expensive, too hard to use, ill-fitting distribution channels.

Apple is in a different spot. Today, you can find a number of iPod watchbands such as this one:

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would merely integrate an existing accessory into a new iPod. Sales of the iPod proper are decelerating, so the iPod-as-iWatch could give the line a much needed boost, but it’s difficult to reconcile the rumors of “100 people” working on the project if it’s just a retrofit job. Is Apple working on an iWatch that can be experienced as an Even More Personal personal computer — an “intimate computer”? If so, many questions arise: user interface, sensors, iOS version, new types of apps, connection with other iDevices… And, of course price.

This would be much more interesting than the perennially in-the-future Apple TV set. Of course, iWatch and Apple TV aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If the Löwe buyout rumors are true, Apple could do both — the company could develop its own watch device and repurpose Löwe’s TV. (I still doubt the TV set part, as opposed to enhancing the black puck.)

But once we understand what Apple’s only business is, and that the related software, retail, and services are simply part of the supporting cast, Apple’s attitude towards big acquisitions becomes clearer. Apple isn’t looking at buying a big new business, it already owns The Big One. So, no movie studio, no retail chain or cable company, no HP or Dell, or Yahoo!. (But… a big law firm, perhaps?) Integrating a large group of people into Apple’s strong, unbending culture would, alone, prove to be impossible.

A small acquisition to absorb technology (and talented people) makes sense. The cultural integration risks remain, but at a manageable scale, unlike what happened to Exxon in the early eighties when it burned $4B (that was real money, then) in a failed attempt to become an information systems company — you know, the Oil of the Twenty-First Century.

Let’s just hope Apple doesn’t talk itself into a “because we can” move.

JLG@mondaynote.com